Jason: “He swings the axe, but he’s clearly not aiming for the shield.
Chris: “Hope he’s not aiming for my neck.”
Jason: “…Little bit.”
Me: “Do any of us watching notice he’s not playing by the rules?”
Jason: “You do now, but it’s a little late. I mean, it’s the middle of melee combat, it’s a little hard to, you know, always know where you’re swinging. At least that’s the excuse he’s gonna use.”
Cameron: “It was an axe-ident.”
THE TWILIGHT’S FORTUNE
By the time the sun sets the next night, the Twilight is back in the Bay, hiding in the deep waters of the Golden Gate Channel. The crew putters about their work, mindless as always, not even glancing up as Anstis stirs back to life in the captain’s chair. Anstis gets up, resettles his hat and jacket, and stalks off through his boat to find me, knowing he will have awoken first.
He finds me passed out in the torpedo room. He stares a moment, then pats me down, finding the scepter and pulling it out to examine it. It’s impressively gilded and jeweled, but he can’t see anything about it that would make the Giovanni want it so badly.
Nothing, that is, until he takes a closer look at the large stone on top. The gold tines holding it in look to have been bent and reshaped leaving it loose in the setting. Anstis peels them back and pries out the stone, finding the empty hollow underneath. He toys with it thoughtfully, then replaces the stone and shoves the scepter back into the waistline of my jeans. He stalks back to the command center and gestures for the phone to call Xiang Li Weng.
“Captain,” Mr. Weng greets him. “I’m gratified to hear from you. A little bird told me there was excitement in the sea last night.”
“There was.” Anstis glances down the boat’s corridor. With no time to waste until I wake up, he gets right to the point. “My compatriot has the scepter.”
Mr. Weng pauses. “Does he? That is an unfortunate circumstance,” he says calmly, as if commenting on a change in the weather.
“It appears to be nothing but a gold bauble, but there is a container in the top, hidden under a gem. There is nothing in it.”
“Nothing….” Mr Weng is quiet a few long moments, and when he speaks again, his tone is much more serious. “You are a resourceful one, Captain, I had hoped you would not find it, but yes, what we seek was within that container. It’s possible that whoever had the scepter before removed the item, or that your compatriot did. The scepter by itself is valuable but that item is far more so, and is what we require.”
Anstis considers this. “…I’ll call you back.” He hangs up the phone and rushes back to search me again.
Paul wakes up on the couch in his office and spends a few minutes staring at the ceiling. It’s the night of the flyting, so he has just a few hours to collect his poetic thoughts and get his ass to Alameda. But before that, he apparently decides to center himself with the most relaxing thing he can think of: long work-related phonecalls.
First he calls Gates, to check on how the ghoul-sitting went: “Gates! How did it go today?”
“…Okay,” she says, voice uncharacteristically edgy.
Paul sits up. “From your tone it sounds like you had an interesting day….”
“Paul, who was that guy?” Gates asks.
“Some sort of prisoner-slash-servant from an ancient tribe of mages.”
“Paul, this guy’s a mess! He apologized to someone for looking at them! What did they do to him?!”
Paul sighs and gets up. “I don’t know, but I’m going to guess it was decades worth of stuff. Where is he now?”
“Asleep on my couch,” Gates says.
(Me: “GATES+BOB OTP!!!”)
Paul glances out his office window at the deepening darkness. “How long ago did he conk out?”
“After I gave him the sleeping pill. He wanted to go back to the building where I got him, but, I couldn’t….” She takes a shuddering breath. “Is this how vampires work? You take people and turn them into this?”
Paul is silent a moment before responding. “Generally…yes. The one’s that do, anyway. Not all of them do. Bob was under the custody of Heinrich Himmler until Georgia and I killed him a few days ago.”
The silence stretches so long that Paul checks to make sure the call didn’t disconnect. “You…killed Himmler!? I….” Gates trails off, then takes another breath to collect herself. “Look, Paul, How do I know that this isn’t going to happen to the rest of us that know about all this?”
“Well it wont happen through me. I try to keep you guys at a safe distance.”
“And if you can’t? Klaus has been talking to me about something, somebody he’s supposed to meet…?”
“Yes. Another vampire. Not Himmler-level bad, though.”
“Well great! Thanks! That reassures me a lot! He’s better than an undead Heinrich Himmler!”
Paul’s mind flashes back to the strange, pensive behavior Marcus displayed in the lab the night before. “He’s an ancient Roman, so I have a little bit of a tough time getting a read on him. He has a strong sense of honor and duty to those he considers himself responsible to. I don’t think he’d keep servants the same way.”
Gates sighs. “Well what am I supposed to do with this guy?”
“I can pick him up and take him back.”
“…You’re giving him back!?”
Paul winces at her shock but continues. “I’m giving him to someone who is capable of rehabilitating him,” he says firmly.
“A vampire! Who apparently ‘owns’ him right now?”
“She has a responsibility to him—“
“Paul, he called her mistress to me like a hundred times!” Gates blurts.
“Right, and if you release him on the world, what do you think he’s going to do? He’s not ready to be out there. I mean if it were up to me and he would be harmless I’d say let him go, give him an apartment somewhere, but she can reintroduce him to the modern world without pulling him harmfully away from what he knows.”
“Unless she just keeps him like a slave! Paul do you know when the last time he’d been outside was?”
“HE DIDN’T EITHER!”
Paul rubs his face and paces the office. “Look, I understand what you’re saying, and that sort of thing is atrocious. You’ll never see me do that. I’ll very willingly die before I ever do something that disgusting.”
“But were not giving him back to you, Paul,” Gates snaps.
“Don’t look at it as giving it back to a master. He’s not property.”
“Really? Ask him that, why don’t you!”
“He doesn’t understand yet, he’s only been free two days,” Paul says.
“Then why does he keep saying that she’ll be angry with him if he doesn’t go back to the building?”
“Because he doesn’t know anything else! When people are ghouled they don’t age. He could be decades old, or over a hundred. I don’t know what the humane thing to do is here, but we cant just let him out in the world. He’s at least with someone who knows where he’s coming from, someone who had the presence of mind to call me and make sure he was taken care of.”
Another long pause. “…Alright Paul, I’ll take him back. But I want you to promise me he’s not going to be there for much longer. That no-one is going to be there for much longer, except that other vampire.”
Paul nods, though the only one there to see is his reflection in the window. “Okay,” he says seriously.
“…Alright, then. The sleeping pill will wear off in an hour or so, I’ll drop him off then.”
Paul thanks her and hangs up. He stares out the window a few more minutes before calling Georgia. He relays to her some of Gate’s concerns, which Georgia waves off breezily.
Paul, though continues to press the point: “I want your assurance that part of his rehabilitation involves him becoming un-ghouled.”
Georgia’s breezy tone drops. “You realize if he becomes un-ghouled, he will die.”
“My concern is how can he know his own mind if he’s blood-bound to someone?”
“My concern is, why does it matter, if he’s happy?”
Paul glowers and paces a few moments before responding. “Because I believe people get to choose whether they want to be happy or not. That it’s not the end-all and be-all for them.”
Georgia processes this. “…Curious. Okay, well, again I say, how about we go about the work of rehabilitating him, and when we get to the point where we think he’s been rehabilitated, we’ll revisit this.”
Paul nods silently, accepting this compromise for the moment. All this talk of rehabilitation and Nazi’s, though, reminds him of another issue: Wolfgang, the young Nazi-Tremere ghoul we captured on Alcatraz, the one under custody of Klaus at the moment. “Do you still feel you’re able to take a similar situation under your care, but someone who might be evil?” Paul asks carefully.
“…Oh the other guy! Yeah we should go pick him up! Then I’ll have two!”
Georgia’s sudden enthusiasm sets off alarms in Paul’s mind, but they’re drowned out by his blood-bonded trust. “O…kay, we’ll work that out after the Thing.”
“Oh, yeah, can you pick me up for that? Also we should probably go soon, I may have to go to Pluto at midnight.”
THE TWILIGHT’S FORTUNE
Anstis ducks into the torpedo doom, rolls me flat onto the deck, and starts digging through pockets, looking for the secret item.
(Me: “Now I do wish I had shoved it up my ass.”)
He digs out coins, keys, stray bullets, a box of breathmints, some wadded up receipts and bits of paper, and one small leather bag. Many of these things are small enough to have fit in the scepter compartment, but none of them seem particularly necromantic.
Anstis runs back to the phone. “What does this item look like?” he asks Weng as soon as he picks up.
Weng, apparently deciding not to comment on Anstis’s lack of decorum, continues. “To the best of my understanding it would be a small container, made of gold or something more mundane. There will be various objects in it. Ritual objects. I have never laid eyes on it myself.”
Anstis frowns and nods. “Very well.” He hangs up again and runs back to the torpedo room…to find me getting groggily to my feet. He stumbles to a halt. “Tom. Good evening,” he says flatly.
“Hey,” I mumble, leaning heavily on the torpedo tubes. On top of my slowly-healing damage from the fight, I’m hungry, dangerously so. It takes all my focus to keep from throwing myself at Anstis, and thus I don’t notice his flustered attitude, or that my clothes were rifled through. “Is there any blood on this boat? Besides the crew.”
“Nay, but we are back in the Bay. Perhaps we can surface and find something.”
I nod mutely and gesture him to lead on. We head back to the control room, where he orders the sub to head to Alameda and surface off-shore. Once we do, he and I climb up the tower and out onto the hull. The lights of the Bay Cities glitter all around us in the distance, but here, just off Alameda naval base, everything is dark. We’re about fifty feet from the shore, as close as we can get, but there’s no water traffic anywhere near to see us.
Anstis tries to summon seabirds for me to feed on, but only succeeds in attracting one (which makes the, like, fifth time in a row Jim hasn’t been able to summon more than one of any animal he’s called. We’ve decided he pretty much just sucks at Animalism.). Still, I dig in gratefully, choking down the fishy, oily blood, trying to keep the gore off my clothes. Helgi and his gang might not be able to see us roll up on the sub, but I’m still hoping to make an impressive entrance somehow. Birdshit and feathers all over me wouldn’t really help that image.
Meanwhile, while I’m distracted, Anstis pickpockets the goddamn leather bag from my jeans.
I throw the seagull carcass away, still starving. “Can you call anything else? More birds?” I ask, turning to Anstis.
He stares back innocently. “Nay, but there may be other things….” He points down in the water, where I can just make out the ripples of a seal investigating the submarine.
I grumble and start stripping off clothes, since showing up soaked wouldn’t be great either. I dive in, dispatch the seal, then, feeling much better, climb back up to the deck. “Alright,” I mutter as I get dressed, “We gotta get moving here. I assume this is a neutral thing, so I’m not gonna bring my guns into Helgi’s turf, but let me grab my sword just in case and I should be ready…to….”
I trail off as I realize the bag is missing from my pants. I clap at my pockets and stare around the deck. “Captain, did you happen to see…?”
Anstis looks suspiciously nonchalant. “I’ve told the sub to surface again in two hours. Meet me on shore.” With that, he shifts down into parrot-form and launches into the air, toward the base.
Seconds later, the Twilight’s ballast pumps kick on and the submarine starts to descend. I freeze and stare around at the rising water.
(Me: “…I’m wearing all my good GEAR, you motherfucker! How the hell am I supposed to get to shore?!”
Jim: “It’s fifty yards!”
Me: “It’s covered in mud!!!”
Jim: “There’s no dingy anyway! What do you want me to do, get wet with you?”
Garvin: “Guys, listen. You are asking a gay man from San Francisco to show up at a social event covered in mud and completely ungroomed.”
Chris: “Colleen, I like that the part you’re angry about is not that he stole something from you, but that he didn’t give you a ride.”)
Paul and Georgia arrive at the Thing, driving straight across the tarmac to the cluster of people and motorcycles in the middle. Like last night, concrete barriers have been set up in a loose circle defining the space, but tonight the crowd has grown considerably. More Anarchs are lurking around, sneering and posturing—Bev sneering hardest of all—but a few bigger names have joined the group as well. Doc is here, easily identifiable in the crowd by his hat. Baron Leeland is here, but so is Esteban de la Vega, Baron of the Sunset, pulling calmly at a cigar, surrounded by a retinue of his men. Marcus, of course, is here, dressed in his Roman-best, sitting alone on one of the concrete barriers, surrounded by a berth of almost five feet from the rest of the crowd. Surprisingly, the shimmering astral projection of Adrianus van Brugge is also here, near Marcus, and also being avoided by the crowd.
Paul nods at Leeland. Leeland flashes a smile that is more a grimace and ducks out of Paul’s line of sight. Ignoring this brush-off, Paul wanders toward van Brugge. “Mr. van Brugge! Glad to see you up and about!”
Even coming from a translucent body, van Brugge’s gaze is piercing. “So to speak,” he grumbles. “It has not exactly been a good week.”
Paul shrugs. “Could have been worse. Could have been inside a dragon—“
—And that’s when I arrive, muddy-wet and stinking of marsh, sludging along the back of the crowd where I hope no-one will notice.
Paul stops as he sees me. “Tom! You look like hell!”
I stop, stare at him a moment, then keep walking.
van Brugge gives me a long look and smirks. “This is what you get for taking my clothes and giving them to a werewolf,” he mutters as I pass.
“They looked better on her anyway,” I snap as I head toward Marcus.
On the far side of the circle, Helgi emerges from the crowd, his axe looking freshly polished and his gear looking freshly bloodied. He laughs and jokes with his men. Paul watches him, takes a steadying breath, then steps into the circle to approach. “Looks like you draw quite a crowd,” he says.
Helgi grins and throws out his arms apologetically. “What can I say, I have something of a reputation.”
“Well, I look forward to learning a thing or two from you tonight.”
“Indeed. As a courtesy, I’ll let you start.”
Paul glances around at the eager stares surrounding them. “That’s alright, I actually think I’ll be more comfortable responding.”
Helgi folds his arms and leans down. “My boy…I don’t think you’d be able to respond if I started.”
Around the circle, the crowd laughs darkly.
(Jason: “Kara, what are you doing during all of this?”
Kara: “I…am looking sooo pretty!”)
I make my way through the crowd, glaring at anyone who snickers at me, but the snickering trails off as I walk up to stand next to Marcus.
He, though, can barely hide a smirk as he looks me over. “Tom. Looks like you’ve had an interesting night.”
“Yeah, well,” I grumble. Across the circle, I see Anstis flutter down and pop back into pirate form. I stare daggers at him. He tosses me a jaunty wave.
Just then, something else descends from the sky, landing heavily on the barrier next to Marcus. Aquilifer settles herself, peers at me, cocking her head curiously, then flutters her wings in a begging motion.
(Me: “I offer her a stake.”
Jim: “You don’t have any steak.”
Me: “No, a stake.”)
She pecks experimentally at the wood, then looks at me expectantly. “I don’t think she gets the joke,” Marcus says.
I sigh and put the stake away, then glance around the crowd. Everyone seems to be focused on Paul and Helgi, and with the rising excitement Anstis is beyond even Auspex-eavesdropping. “Boss,” I mutter, leaning down, “I didn’t want to talk about it earlier on the phone, but I pulled…something else out of the scepter.”
Marcus goes stone-still. “…Something else?”
“A little bag, with a bunch of little figures in it.”
He stares unblinkingly into the distance, skin suddenly far paler than even normal. “…It was in there?” he whispers.
I hesitate. I expected that the bag was what he was actually looking for, but I didn’t expect a reaction like this. “It was, but it’s missing now. I had it last night, but sometime between then and now it disappeared, and the only one on the boat cognizant enough to take it was the pirate.” I glance across the circle at Anstis, presently preening at his coat and laughing with some of the Anarchs.
“…The pirate has it?” Marcus asks.
“I don’t know, I mean, I didn’t see him but—“
“Tom,” his head snaps toward me, eyes doing that strange pulsing thing. I freeze. “Be exceptionally clear with me now. Where did you have that bag and who has it now?”
“I had it in my pocket when I went to sleep on the sub, and sometime between then and now it disappeared.”
“Who else was on the submarine?”
“Just Anstis, and a bunch of mindless zombie-ghouls.” I pause. “Unless someone shadow-teleported in and back out again, that seems to be going around….“
Marcus stares off into the distance again and nods. “Alright. I will handle this myself.”
Just then, Helgi lifts his arms and all eyes turn to the center of the circle.
Once silence falls, Helgi steps back and gestures grandly at Paul. Paul looks at Helgi, scans the crowd, then lowers his head. There’s a few moments of silence…then he raises it, and begins.
You’re wasting my time,
I’ve got quarterly reports,
And I’m a busy man,
So I’ll make these orderly retorts.
A decade ago I dropped out of college
Not a penny to my name – humble beginnings I acknowledge.
But since then I’ve revolutionized media,
Connected the world (and sponsored Expedia.)
The sneers and snickers fall as everyone stares open-mouthed.
Making a billion dollars might, to you, be daunting,
Especially since you’re already reeling from my taunting,
And my trick to success you’re no doubt wanting.
So sit tight, Small Guy, my words will be haunting.
Gasps and a few amused whoops at the insult lift from the crowd, but Paul doesn’t hesitate. He paces as he continues.
Not that it’s complicated, you see.
I just waged a war on mediocrity,
And for all your jabs that I’m a Camarilla wannabe,
You yourself are part of the gerontocracy.
You’re nothing but a lazy roast,
Loafing here in Oakland while I clean up the coast,
Ancient evils arise in our city,
And you shy from the fight – Isn’t that a pity?
As he chants, Paul gestures at the glittering San Francisco skyline across the water, then storms on.
Maybe we should pardon your cowardice then,
Your enemies will be slain by braver men,
And of course you can sit here and forget the insults you owe them
Useless like a barren sow in your pig pen.
Of course, the sow would smell better
Than your hovel here, you mangy Irish setter.
Even pig shit has a sweeter scent
Than the cowardice you’re exuding at this event.
Paul stops pacing and moves to stand in front of Helgi, hands clasped loosely in front of him, as if finishing a keynote address.
Also you only have sex in the missionary position,
And I have it on good authority you fail to bring your partners to orgasm.
Silence. Everyone stares, motionless. A few people trade glances. Then, suddenly, Leeland steps forward from the crowd…and starts to applaud. Moments later, everyone else does too, followed by cheers. Someone hands Paul a glass of blood and he sips triumphantly.
Helgi looks down at Paul over his folded tree-trunk arms…then breaks into an open-mouthed grin. He nods, visibly impressed. The crowd cheers louder, then dies down as Helgi takes a long, slow breath and his voice booms effortlessly across the crowd.
That verse was so still, tired, and lifeless
I have to wonder if your computer didn’t write it.
Innovator of technology, I’m told that that’s you.
So how did you rhyme like it’s fourteen ninety two?
How did you think your verses would curse the Iron Bear?
I’ve Blown hard with the Bard who’s Spear shakes in the air!
I’ve traded insults in rhyme over the course of centuries
Bucked an ear with Blackbeard as we sailed the seven seas!
I’ve been around for over a thousand years
I’ll get you a towel to dry the back of your ears
You’re young and fast and have the technology
Just be glad your Sire waited till you lost all of that acne!
You’re a recent inclusion to the brotherhood of night
Sired from surprise by passion and a cursed bite
Stumbling amidst the Cammies, fumbling about on Twitter
Wondering why no one else was ever wearing body glitter?
Paul snerks some of the blood he’s drinking out his nose. Most of the crowd groans and yells at the last line, but a few of the vampires—the older ones—stare around in confusion.
You’re of the Clan of the Roses, and it’s time for war
Flyte or Fight, you chose, but your choosing was poor
I’ve tangled with the thorns of your clan for scores upon score
So far it’s been Helgi wins, Tories always wanting more.
Your name carries weight in the world around you.
Pity yours is Paul, so small and humble.
Stewart’s a Scot name, and you’re a shame to you kin
First Scotsman in history to be sacked by a Roman!
Paul glances at Marcus. He’s glaring at Helgi over a half-facepalm.
Tesseract is the name you gave to your company
Now it’s being run by way of Shadow Puppetry
You’ve lost your way, your satnav’s gone quiet
The only Tom Tom you’ve got is a Queen and Pirate!
My jaw drops as the crowd whoops. I look over at Anstis, but he stares back blankly.
So Paul, I assume you’ve read your bible
Like a good little christian child named for a disciple
Well tonight Bragi’s the God to give to at your leisure
But don’t forget to Render Unto your Little Caesar!
The crowd bursts into cheers. Paul hesitates a moment, enraptured by Helgi’s lyricism (and he is by no means the first Toreador in history to be so) but he shakes himself out of it and applauds as well.
One of Helgi’s men steps forward and circles the ring, collecting the crowd’s attention. “Now let’s decide!” he shouts. “Let’s hear it for…the Toreador!” Cheers and applause echo across the asphalt, and a few people in back rev their bikes. Bev, though, standing at the edge of the circle, does not cheer, glowering at Paul while fiddling with a knife. Paul smiles at him and blows a kiss. Bev snarls and stabs the knife into the concrete barrier.
The emcee waves everyone down. “And now…for Helgi Isarnbjorn!!!”
The crowd erupts. The Anarchs whoop and holler it up, revving their bikes and firing guns into the air. Paul applauds politely as well.
The emcee raises his hands again. “The winner…Helgi!”
Cheers again. Someone runs forward and thrusts big flagons of blood at both of them. Paul takes one and extends his other hand to Helgi. Helgi grins and accepts it in a firm fore-arm grasp. “Well done, Paul Stewart! You didn’t win, but you did show up, and you did quite well, all things told. It was as close a margin as I’ve seen in years. I’ll be keeping the Prince, of course. But the good news is, you will be allowed to leave alive.”
The crowd laughs, but there’s a cruel edge to it. Marcus, still perched on the barrier, rolls his eyes. Paul opens his mouth to reply, but Helgi lifts a hand to cut him off. “There is one more matter, however. You did cause something of a disturbance during your last visit, and there’s a personal grievance that needs to be settled.” Helgi gestures to the crowd and turns. Across the circle, one man steps forward, fists clenched and glowering.
The crowd falls silent. Paul frowns at the Brujah. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Helgi laughs, the sound echoing like an avalanche in the silence. “It’s a simple matter. Tell me…do you know what a holmgang is?”
Gasps roll through the crowd, followed by cheers, much more bloodthirsty than the ones before. Marcus leaps to the ground, dark clouds erupting around him. The crowd’s jeers suddenly cut off and everyone—myself included—takes another step back from him. Helgi sees him approaching and holds up a placating hand. “Don’t worry…I have already prepared the shields for you,” he says grinning.
Some of Helgi’s men appear carrying a set of six shields and a great animal skin. They lay the skin down in the middle of the circle and set out the shields, three on each side. More men bring out weapons—axes, swords, and maces—and lay them out on the tarmac. Paul stares at them warily, while Bev stalks forward, cracking his knuckles.
(Chris: “I spend a blood on Dex…and I will do this every turn, until the fight starts.”)
“Here are the rules,” Helgi rumbles. “You are to break your opponent’s shields. The first one to run out of shields loses. No killing on this one. You have to be very careful on that.” Bev stops, glaring at Helgi. Helgi just grins back. “That doesn’t mean there’s not a little bit of blood that’s spilled. But we do have to be civilized about this.”
“The fuck we do!” Bev snaps. “I want this guy!”
Helgi raises an eyebrow, then slowly, deliberately, unslings his massive war-and-music axe. He braces it on the ground in front of him and regards Bev. “Do you want to challenge the ruling of the Laagman? We can settle this ourselves, if you prefer.”
Bev stares up at Helgi’s towering near-seven-foot frame…then backs down. “Fine…let this piece of shit choose first.”
Helgi nods and turns to the Lasombra glowering at him, sword in-hand. “Hello Marcus, how are you this fine night?”
“I was doing far better ten seconds ago,” Marcus growls, “What is this?”
Helgi face turns serious. “When your boy came into the Thing last night he decided to speak out of turn, and that riled some tempers. This is to settle that so there’s no more complication there. It’s this or he comes for your boy in the night with a friend or two.”
Paul holds out a hand. “Marcus it’s alright. Helgi, if you can guarantee he’s not going to kill me, I can take a beating.” He hesitates. “Maybe give one out, but more likely take it.”
Helgi nods and smiles. “If you proceed to perform as well as you did at the flyting, I suspect you will at least hold your own. But I suspect he does not wish to die tonight either.” He holds up a hand. “And if there’s one death tonight, there will be another.”
“Oh I guarantee you of that,” Marcus says, shadows boiling around him.
Suddenly, van Brugge’s apparition flickers into existence in the midst of the pow-wow. “Hello, Helgi. It’s been awhile.”
Helgi’s grin cools as he looks down at the Tremere. “Not long enough.”
Helgi and van Brugge banter a bit, discussing some Chantry that may or may not have burnt down in the presence of the viking centuries ago, while Paul sets down his flagon and starts picking up the weapons, testing the weights. After hefting the last one, he stares at them all a long moment, then turns to Helgi. “I will use my hands.”
All chatter stops. Everyone turns to Paul. “You decline a weapon?” Helgi asks slowly. Paul nods. Helgi laughs and turns back to Marcus. “Well, he won’t die, but your boy may be losing a hand tonight.”
Marcus glares at Paul. “Occupational hazard,” he grumbles.
(Me: “Especially in this game.”)
Bev, too, scowls at Paul, and picks up the largest axe in the pile. With that, Helgi gestures everyone back, clearing the circle of everyone but the two combatants: the massive, spiked-leather-clad Brujah, wielding an axe longer than his arm, and Paul, the skinny turtlenecked Toreador, wielding nothing.
Anstis watches all this from his place deep in the crowd, with an expression that says he would be eating popcorn if he could. Moments after everyone retreats, though, he feels cold wash low across his body. “Captain,” a voice says. Anstis looks down. Marcus is standing behind him, glaring with Aquilifer-ferocity. He gestures for Anstis to follow him out of the crowd. Grumbling, Anstis concedes.
“My congratulations on your successions,” Marcus says as they stop a few feet away.
Anstis makes a half-bow. “Thank you, Accio will trouble us no more.”
“I hear also you have profited well by the bargain. A submarine, was it?” Marcus scans the distant water.
“May I offer you a free piece of advice?” Marcus leans forward. “Quit while you’re ahead.”
Anstis hesitates, then smiles and nods.
Marcus steps closer. “I don’t think you understand me Captain. Do you happen to have something of mine?”
Anstis shrugs. “Not to my knowledge.”
Marcus stares a moment, then chuckles. “You’re good, captain, you’re very good. But I’m better. Hand it over.”
Anstis cocks his head. “Hand what over?”
The shadows lapping at Marcus’s feet writhe faster. “I think you know exactly what. What you took from the Brujah. A small bag.”
Anstis watches Marcus a long moment, then glances around. “There are many who seek this,” he mutters.
“There are. I am one of them, and I am also the one standing in front of you, armed. Who else wants this bag, Captain?”
“A certain individual in the city.”
Marcus glances at the distant skyline. “That is a very wide net. If that individual was Perpenna, you would not live to see the next night. Do you know what you’re carrying?”
“Not as of yet.”
The shadows twist higher. “Then let me make this very clear to you. Perpenna does. Do you really want to be holding it when he comes looking?” Marcus unsheathes his sword and jerks his head toward the crowd. “You act like I’m giving you a choice. Those two are about to engage in mortal combat, you think anyone would notice?”
Anstis stares back a long moment, ignoring the darkness lapping toward him, then sighs, produces the leather bag from his coat, and hands it over. Marcus takes it carefully and looks inside. A strange relief seems to wash over him and the shadows quell. “…Thank you, Captain,” he murmurs.
Anstis grumbles and straightens his coat. “Now, please let me know what it is I handed you.”
Marcus is quiet a moment, still staring at the figures inside. “I don’t know if you’d know what it is. It’s called a bulla. It has great personal value.”
Marcus tucks it into his tunic. “To me.”
Anstis nods, face calculating. “The Giovanni are after it.”
“The Giovanni? What do they want with—no. No, I think I know, don’t I?” Marcus stares off toward the city again.
“I am entangled with them in a way I do not care to be,” Anstis adds.
Marcus sheathes his sword. “That can be remedied. You had a hand in recovering this, Captain. I do not forget this. Had you forborne from giving it to me, I would not have forgotten it either.” The shadows melt back into cracks in the asphalt and Marcus walks toward the crowd. “Be careful what treasures you take. You never know who might be looking for them.”
Paul and Bev, meanwhile, have taken their shields and their assigned places. The crowd presses close against the barriers, with volunteers holding the spare shields on opposite sides of the circle. Paul’s shields have been quite expertly painted with Toreador roses. He takes a moment to admire them before bringing himself back to the situation at hand.
Helgi stands to the side, halfway between the two men. The crowd hushes as he raises his arms. “…BEGIN!” he bellows and the crowd erupts again.
(I would like to take a moment to state that the events you are about to witness are not exaggerated or retconned for dramatic narrative effect. This is actually how all the rolls worked out.)
Bev lunges at Paul, clearing the circle almost instantly, swinging his axe, but in the millisecond before it makes contact, it’s clear he’s not aiming at Paul’s shield. At the last moment, Paul dodges out of the way, placing him next to Bev’s shield as he blows past. In a burst of speed, Paul tosses his shield up into the air, rips Bev’s shield it off his arm, cracks it over his knee, then catches his own shield and backs away before Bev’s realized what happened.
Bev stumbles back, staring at the shattered wood on the ground. The cheering rises. Bev curses at Paul and storms over to grab his next shield, taking care to wrap this one to his arm tightly. He clatters his axe against his shield and lunges at Paul again.
Bev winds up for a hard swing. Once again Paul ducks out of the way, but toward Bev. Using the Brujah’s own momentum, he reaches up, grabs Bev’s hair, and slams it down against his own shield. A sickeningly wet crack echoes through the ring. Bev stumbles again, almost dropping his axe, then looks down at his shield, still strapped to his arm but split almost perfectly in two.
The crowd falls silent, awed murmurs rolling through it. Bev stands a moment in shock, then rips off the pieces and throws them to the ground, gesturing for his last shield. Once again, he straps it on carefully, then clatters the axe against it and steps forward, but slowly this time, circling the space, waiting for Paul to make the first move.
Paul, still armed with nothing but his first shield, watches Bev calmly. “Say when,” Paul whispers roughly. The crowd’s shouts rise again, and at the edge of the circle, Doc smiles and nods.
Bev snarls, and, bracing his legs, raises the axe for a heavy lunge. Before he moves, though, Paul dashes forward, angling to slide between his legs and come up behind him. Paul skids to the ground, but the asphalt catches him, tumbling him to a stop right in front of Bev. And right underneath Bev’s axe.
Paul rolls to the side just as the axe crashes down, sending sparks flying. Bev howls and strikes again, barely grazing Paul’s shoulder as he scrambles away and back to his feet. Bev swings again, clearly not aiming for Paul’s shield now, but Paul ducks under the arc of the axe, then uses Bev’s momentum to wrench it from his hands. Armed now for the first time, Paul swings at Bev’s leg with the back of the axe, using it to hook him off his feet.
(Me: “SWEEP THE LEG!”)
Bev crashes down and rolls away, coming back to his feet near the pile of weapons. He curses and grabs the nearest one, a sword, and comes at Paul again. Bev swings inexpertly, blinded by fury, and Paul is able to easily sidestep the blow and smash the shield with the the axe.
Bev’s shield explodes. Shards of wood clatter to the ground around them and he stumbles to a halt. There’s a moment of silence, and then the crowd explodes as well. Paul raises the axe to the crowd, circling in a brief moment of self-satisfaction.
A primal scream behind him makes him stop. Paul turns in time to see rage boil over in Bev’s eyes and the Brujah throw himself at him.
“STOP!” Paul commands with full-bore Majesty. Waves of power radiate off him and many people in the crowd fall to their knees. Bev hesitates, but the force of his frenzy overwhelms the magic and he continues his charge. Paul ducks under the sword and drops his axe to grab Bev’s fist. They struggle, sword between them, Bev’s burning, mindless eyes staring into Paul’s—
—And then Bev’s eyes go dead. He reels and collapses to the ground, revealing the stake shoved through his back, and Helgi standing behind him, a different fury raging on his face. He strides forward, wrenches the sword from Bev’s fist, and rolls his body off the skin with a kick. “This I’ll deal with afterwards.” Helgi turns to the crowd and raises his arms. “Now, let it be known, Paul Stewart has performed holmgang in response to a challenge of honor!”
There’s a brief silence as everyone processes what just happened, then rising applause, followed by cheers. Paul hesitates a moment, glancing at his painted, unbroken shield, then at the monsters around him, celebrating and calling his name. He meets Doc’s eyes, and the cowboy tips his hat.
Paul smiles grimly and takes a bow.
END OF NIGHT
VERY IMPORTANT EPILOGUE
Reading about the flyting is excellent, of course, but why not listen and experience it for yourself? Many thanks to Cameron, who merged the two audio recordings–our end and his end–so that his voice came through clearer. The occasional echo effects only add to Helgi’s gravitas.